Do Players Perform Better in Fantasy in a Contract Year?

May 17, 2021
Do Players Perform Better in Fantasy in a Contract Year?

Last year, while I was looking through 4for4’s history of incredible content, I stumbled upon this article written back in 2012 by Jonathan Bales. It got me thinking. I love taking a look at players in a contract year, but with updated data, does the old adage about players improving play when the pressure is on for new money hold up? Bales found it to be more myth than fact nine years ago, but has the data changed? This year, I built off my data from last year, adding in data from 2020 to see if anything changed.

Getting Started

I looked at the last six years of players in a contract year to determine whether or not there was a significant increase in fantasy points per game (FPPG) from the previous season.

Some qualifiers:

  • Players must have played at least half the season in both years. Since I was using FPPG, I didn’t want to skew the results by including someone who was productive in a small sample size, nor did I want to include someone who missed significant time due to injury in either of the seasons (i.e. Rob Gronkowski didn't play in 2019).
  • Players must’ve scored at least 5.0 FPPG in their contract year. Anything less than that was unlikely to return a player worth seriously considering in a redraft league.
  • I excluded players who re-signed with their own teams early or during the season. The data comes from players who were expected to be top-100 free agents after the end of the season, and was pulled from various archived news outlets and reports. The attempt is to be more meaningful than completely comprehensive.

I started with an overall look at the numbers by year, to check for annual consistency.

Contract Year Performance by Season
Year Sum of Previous Year FPPG Sum of Contract Year FPPG Change in FPPG Percentage Change
2015 118.9 160.0 +41.1 +34.6%
2016 181.5 188.2 +6.7 +3.7%
2017 152.7 141.2 -11.5 -7.5%
2018 95.2 105.1 +9.9 +10.4%
2019 289.9 281.3 -8.6 -3.0%
2020 264.5 274.2 +9.7 +3.7%
Grand Total 1,102.7 1,150.0 +47.3 +4.3%

The first thing that stands out is there is no consistency year-to-year. That's not a good sign for making determinations, and there’s a huge jump back in 2015 followed by a significant fall in 2017. That seems like there’s a likely outlier in each year. There is an overall increase of 4.3% over the course of the last six years, so at least there’s a little bit of a premise for contract year improvements on a macro scale.

Let’s take a look at it by position:

Contract Year Performance by Position
Position Sum of Previous Year FPPG Sum of Contract Year FPPG Change in FPPG Percentage Change
QB 256.0 246.7 -9.3 -3.6%
RB 429.6 435.7 +6.1 +1.4%
TE 43.5 58.5 +15.0 +34.5%
WR 373.6 409.1 +35.5 +9.5%
Grand Total 1,102.7 1,150.0 +47.3 +4.3%

It's interesting that quarterbacks are the only position that showed a drop in production in the aggregate data. Adding in the 2020 numbers didn't change a lot here, but did make the numbers dip a bit. Quarterbacks and running backs dropped a little, while wide receivers increased from 7.2% to 9.5% when I added the 2020 date. The biggest jump was still at tight end, but it normalized a bit from last year. It was at 78.5% last year, but adding in the sixth year of data, it dropped down to 34.5%. Still, with tight end, when looking a little deeper, very few players qualified for consideration. More on that later.

Running backs and wide receivers still showed a nominal increase in production, and generally speaking, 2020 held true with the previous five years of data. To get an idea of how significant each category is, let’s look at the players and years broken out by position and see if we notice any trends.

Quarterbacks

Quarterbacks are so dependent on opportunity, coaching and supporting cast, it’s difficult to take all the different factors into consideration when evaluating whether or not being in a contract year was an actual motivator.

Quarterback Contract Year Production
Player Year Sum of Previous Year FPPG Sum of Contract Year FPPG Change in FPPG Percentage Change
Case Keenum 2017 11.1 15.7 +4.6 +41.4%
Case Keenum 2019 13.4 7.4 -6.0 -44.8%
Colin Kaepernick 2016 12.0 15.3 +3.3 +27.5%
Dak Prescott 2019 17.6 21.1 +3.5 +19.9%
Drew Brees 2017 20.8 16.4 -4.4 -21.2%
Drew Brees 2019 20.1 20.4 +0.3 +1.5%
Jameis Winston 2019 17.8 18.7 +0.9 +5.1%
Kirk Cousins 2016 18.1 18.8 +0.7 +3.9%
Kirk Cousins 2017 18.8 17.4 -1.4 -7.4%
Marcus Mariota 2019 12.5 6.5 -6.0 -48.0%
Mitch Trubisky 2020 13.4 11.8 -1.6 -11.9%
Philip Rivers 2019 17.2 14.7 -2.5 -14.5%
Ryan Fitzpatrick 2015 15.0 17.8 +2.8 +18.7%
Ryan Fitzpatrick 2016 17.8 9.5 -8.3 -46.6%
Ryan Tannehill 2019 12.9 18.7 +5.8 +45.0%
Tom Brady 2019 17.5 16.5 -1.0 -5.7%
Grand Total 256 246.7 -9.3 -3.6%

There are a lot of repeat names on the list, which makes sense. Contract year quarterbacks are often journeymen and/or players toward the end of their careers that struggle to lock up long-term money and don’t re-sign during the final year.

Looking at the names involved, I immediately discount players like Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees. These guys are/were established, consistent producers for long-term teams, and it’s unlikely that contract status has anything to do with their production levels year-to-year.

Case Keenum had a huge increase when he played in Denver, then a huge decrease over two years in Washington. That’s not surprising, as he fits the journeyman designation, and his increase in production was more likely a product of surprise opportunity than anything else.

The names I’m looking at are Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Dak Prescott, Ryan Tannehill, and Kirk Cousins in 2016 before the repeated franchise tag put a sour taste in his mouth.

Combined, these five quarterbacks saw a 4.9 FPPG improvement in contract years or a 6.2% increase. We could argue over whether Tannehill should be included since he entered the season as a backup and was in an entirely new situation, but the only one of the five players who saw a decrease was Mariota last year, who was benched for Tannehill. Likewise, Winston went into a Bruce Arians offense for the first time in his career last season, which definitely contributed to his increase in production. Prescott is perhaps the most textbook example, since he was openly gunning for a new contract.

Verdict: Some Impact. Contract year can potentially make a difference in the rare instance you find a quality starting quarterback young enough to show progress.

Potential 2021 Candidates: Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston

Running Backs

Running backs are primarily dependent on workload. In that, contract year seems less likely to be a factor for this position group. Let’s look:

Running Back Contract Year Production
Player Year Sum of Previous Year FPPG Sum of Contract Year FPPG Change in FPPG Percentage Change
Aaron Jones 2020 16.6 15.1 -1.5 -9.0%
Adrian Peterson 2018 6.8 10.6 +3.8 +55.9%
Alfred Morris 2015 10.7 5.4 -5.3 -49.5%
Austin Ekeler 2019 9.3 13.6 +4.3 +46.2%
Bilal Powell 2015 2.0 8.0 +6.0 +300.0%
Chris Carson 2020 13 12.6 -.04 -3.1%
Chris Ivory 2015 8.4 11.5 +3.1 +36.9%
Chris Johnson 2015 5.7 9.2 +3.5 +61.4%
Christine Michael 2016 3.2 7.7 +4.5 +140.6%
DeAngelo Williams 2016 12.0 9.1 -2.9 -24.2%
Derrick Henry 2019 11.6 18.4 +6.8 +58.6%
Derrick Henry 2020 18.4 19.6 +1.2 +6.5%
Doug Martin 2015 6.2 12.5 +6.3 +101.6%
Doug Martin 2017 8.9 5.9 -3.0 -33.7%
Frank Gore 2017 11.0 9.0 -2.0 -18.2%
Frank Gore 2019 6.5 5.1 -1.4 -21.5%
Gus Edwards 2020 5.4 7.5 +2.1 +38.9%
Isaiah Crowell 2017 10.3 7.1 -3.2 -31.1%
Jamaal Williams 2020 7.7 6.9 -0.8 -10.4%
James Conner 2020 11.2 10.0 -1.2 -10.7%
Jerick McKinnon 2017 6.9 7.8 +0.9 +13.0%
Jordan Howard 2019 10.0 10.1 +0.1 +1.0%
Kareem Hunt 2019 18.6 8.1 -10.5 -56.5%
Kareem Hunt 2020 8.1 11.3 +3.2 +39.5%
Kenyan Drake 2019 9.6 11.6 +2.0 +20.8%
Kenyan Drake 2020 11.6 11.1 -0.5 -4.3%
Lamar Miller 2015 11.6 11.6 +0.0 +0.0%
Latavius Murray 2016 10.1 12.5 +2.4 +23.8%
LeGarrette Blount 2015 5.5 9.7 +4.2 +76.4%
LeGarrette Blount 2016 9.7 14.1 +4.4 +45.4%
LeGarrette Blount 2017 14.1 6.1 -8.0 -56.7%
Leonard Fournette 2020 12.2 7.4 -4.8 -39.3%
LeVeon Bell 2017 20.0 17.1 -2.9 -14.5%
Mark Ingram 2018 13.8 10.1 -3.7 -26.8%
Malcolm Brown 2020 4.1 5.4 1.3 31.7%
Matt Forte 2015 15.0 13.0 -2.0 -13.3%
Melvin Gordon 2019 18.5 11.6 -6.9 -37.3%
Peyton Barber 2019 8.1 6.3 -1.8 -22.2%
Rex Burkhead 2017 3.7 10.0 +6.3 +170.3%
Rex Burkhead 2020 5.7 8.3 +2.6 +45.6%
T.J. Yeldon 2018 5.8 8.4 +2.6 +44.8%
Tevin Coleman 2018 9.4 10.1 +0.7 +7.4%
Todd Gurley 2020 12.6 9.2 -3.4 -27.0%
Grand Total 429.6 435.7 +6.1 +1.4%

Here are a lot of older guys on one-year deals (Adrian Peterson) and journeyman role-players (LeGarrette Blount), but there are some notable players on the list. Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake and Austin Ekeler all shined in contract years two seasons ago and then Henry and Drake managed to maintain similar production last year in contract years - though Drake and Ekeler in 2019 were aided by a significant increase in workload due to external factors. Meanwhile, last season, we saw Aaron Jones, Chris Carson and James Conner all see decreases. We got big upticks in production for Gus Edwards, Kareem Hunt, Malcolm Brown and Rex Burkhead, and Hunt was someone we highlighted last year as a potential contract-year target. Unfortunately, Todd Gurley's further decline seems indicative of his current career trajectory.

Verdict: Very Little Impact. While some of these running backs definitely showed up big in contract years (Tevin Coleman, Latavius Murray and Henry, specifically) it’s not consistent enough across the board to attribute real substance to contract status. The overall numbers show a slight increase at the position, and there are several candidates this season, but I think we can safely say opportunity and workload are still the primary indicators to use for evaluating running backs.

Potential 2021 Candidates: Melvin Gordon, Gus Edwards, Phillip Lindsay, Leonard Fournette, Raheem Mostert, Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, Ronald Jones, Tevin Coleman, Nyheim Hines, Chase Edmonds, James Conner

Wide Receivers

From the eyeball test, I always found wide receivers to fluctuate in intensity more noticeably. You can tell when a receiver is trying hard on blocks, or when his routes get a little crisper. This position group saw a 9.5% overall increase, so I was anxious to take a deeper look at it:

Wide Receiver Contract Year Production
Player Year Sum of Previous Year FPPG Sum of Contract Year FPPG Change in FPPG Percentage Change
Adam Humphries 2018 4.2 7.0 +2.8 +66.7%
Allen Lazard 2020 4.2 6.5 +2.3 +54.8%
Allen Robinson 2020 9.8 10.1 +0.3 +3.1%
Alshon Jeffery 2015 11.0 11.6 +0.6 +5.5%
Alshon Jeffery 2016 11.6 7.8 -3.8 -32.8%
Amari Cooper 2019 9.4 10.5 +1.1 +11.7%
Anquan Boldin 2015 8.5 7.2 -1.3 -15.3%
Anquan Boldin 2016 7.2 6.7 -0.5 -6.9%
Brandon LaFell 2016 4.8 7.6 +2.8 +58.3%
Brandon Marshall 2016 14.4 6.4 -8.0 -55.6%
Breshad Perriman 2019 4.6 7.3 +2.7 +58.7%
Breshad Perriman 2020 7.3 5.8 -1.5 -20.5%
Chris Godwin 2020 13.4 10.5 -2.9 -21.6%
Corey Davis 2020 4.8 9.0 +4.2 +87.5%
Curtis Samuel 2020 7.4 9.0 +1.6 +21.6%
Danny Amendola 2017 3.9 5.2 +1.3 +33.3%
Danny Amendola 2019 4.6 5.2 +0.6 +13.0%
DeSean Jackson 2016 7.5 8.3 +0.8 +10.7%
DeSean Jackson 2018 6.3 9.2 +2.9 +46.0%
Devin Funchess 2018 8.3 5.6 -2.7 -32.5%
Donte Moncrief 2018 4.3 5.2 +0.9 +20.9%
Emmanuel Sanders 2019 10.6 7.2 -3.4 -32.1%
Golden Tate 2018 8.2 7.1 -1.1 -13.4%
Jamison Crowder 2018 6.3 6.0 -0.3 -4.8%
Jarvis Landry 2017 8.5 9.3 +0.8 +9.4%
Jeremy Kerley 2016 1.7 5.2 +3.5 +205.9%
Jermaine Kearse 2015 4.1 6.2 +2.1 +51.2%
John Brown 2018 4.9 6.4 +1.5 +30.6%
JuJu Smith-Schuster 2020 5.9 8.6 +2.7 +45.8%
Keelan Cole 2020 3.4 5.9 +2.5 +73.5%
Kendall Wright 2016 6.1 5.6 -0.5 -8.2%
Kendrick Bourne 2020 4.2 5.4 +1.2 +28.6%
Kenny Britt 2016 5.4 8.5 +3.1 +57.4%
Kenny Stills 2016 3.9 7.9 +4.0 +102.6%
Larry Fitzgerald 2019 7.2 6.4 -0.8 -11.1%
Marvin Jones 2020 10.1 9.5 -0.6 -5.9%
Michael Floyd 2016 8.1 5.3 -2.8 -34.6%
Nelson Agholor 2019 6.3 5.0 -1.3 -20.6%
Nelson Agholor 2020 5.0 8.6 +3.6 +72.0%
Phillip Dorsett 2019 3.1 5.1 +2.0 +64.5%
Pierre Garcon 2016 7.1 7.6 +0.5 +7.0%
Randall Cobb 2018 6.1 5.4 -0.7 -11.5%
Rishard Matthews 2015 1.8 8.2 +6.4 +355.6%
Robby Anderson 2019 7.6 6.9 -0.7 -9.2%
Robert Woods 2016 5.1 5.2 +0.1 +2.0%
Rueben Randle 2015 7.0 8.0 +1.0 +14.3%
Sammy Watkins 2017 6.9 7.2 +0.3 4.3%
Sammy Watkins 2019 7.5 6.2 -1.3 -17.3%
Sammy Watkins 2020 6.2 5.0 -1.2 -19.4%
T.Y. Hilton 2020 8.0 7.2 -0.8 -10.0%
Taylor Gabriel 2019 5.3 6.8 +1.5 +28.3%
Ted Ginn 2016 9.3 6.6 -2.7 -29.0%
Travis Benjamin 2015 3.2 7.7 +4.5 140.6%
Tyrell Williams 2018 5.9 6.1 +0.2 +3.4%
Will Fuller 2020 7.7 12.4 +4.7 +61.0%
Zach Pascal 2019 2.5 5.9 +3.4 +136.0%
Zach Pascal 2020 5.9 5.8 -0.1 -1.7%
Grand Total 373.6 409.1 +35.5 +9.5%

Once again, there are many older players playing on short-term deals such as Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Brandon Marshall. There are also some notable negatives, with Robby Anderson in 2019 the most glaring, as well as Michael Floyd in 2016. Some notable increases I largely attribute to surprise opportunity include Breshad Perriman and Zach Pascal in 2019, as well as Travis Benjamin and Rishard Matthews in 2015.

The names I find most interesting here are Adam Humphries, Amari Cooper, Devin Funchess, Jamison Crowder, Jarvis Landry, John Brown, Kenny Britt, Nelson Agholor in 2019, Corey Davis, Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin and Alshon Jeffery in 2015. Agholor benefited from a new team atop the depth chart in 2020, and in 2016, Jeffery was disgruntled playing on the franchise tag. Crowder, Funchess, Godwin and Agholor had decreases in production, but the rest of that group increased. Each member of this group fits the criteria of what I would call meaningful contract status:

  1. Fairly safe status on the depth chart
  2. No noticeable offensive decline (i.e. injury to star quarterback, etc.)
  3. Not disgruntled for an easily discernible reason

It’s not perfect. Funchess, for example, suffered from a decline in Cam Newton’s health and Agholor actually got more of an opportunity last year than expected due to injuries. But overall, it’s a good way to whittle the list down to find something meaningful.

Corey Davis last year is a shining example of a contract-year boon. He was labeled a bust before an 87.5% increase in FPPG last year and now he has a fat new contract in New York.

That group saw an overall combined increase of 7.8% in FPPG from the previous year to their contract seasons. That’s fairly significant and is worth thinking about when evaluating the players with deals expiring after this season.

Verdict: Conditional Impact. Contract year receivers who fit my three qualifiers have shown an overall increase in production. This is significant enough to warrant consideration as a factor, but still probably not enough to be a prime motivator for drafting them.

Potential 2021 Candidates: Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin, Will Fuller, Davante Adams, Robby Anderson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Mike Williams, Courtland Sutton, Christian Kirk, Anthony Miller, D.J. Chark, Michael Gallup, Keke Coutee, Travis Fulgham, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Russell Gage, Preston Williams

Tight Ends

My theory about wide receivers would also be the case for tight ends. They can block with more intensity, work harder to come back to the quarterback, and run crisper routes with extra motivation. Here are the results:

Tight End Contract Year Production
Player Year Sum of Previous Year FPPG Sum of Contract Year FPPG Change in FPPG Percentage Change
Ben Watson 2015 1.6 7.3 +5.7 +356.3%
Hunter Henry 2020 7.9 6.1 -1.8 -22.8%
Jack Doyle 2016 0.8 5.4 +4.6 +575.0%
Jared Cook 2018 4.9 7.9 +3.0 +61.2%
Jared Cook 2020 8.9 6.0 -2.9 -32.6%
Jimmy Graham 2017 7.8 7.0 -0.8 -10.3%
Jonnu Smith 2020 4.4 6.6 +2.2 +50.0%
Ladarius Green 2015 1.6 5.1 +3.5 +218.8%
Martellus Bennett 2016 5.6 7.1 +1.5 +26.8%
Grand Total 43.5 58.5 +15.0 +34.5%

It’s a small sample size for tight ends who meet the games played and FPPG minimum requirements over the past five years. That being said, it's a huge increase, largely aided by increased opportunities from guys like Ladarius Green and Ben Watson in 2015 and Jack Doyle the following year. Last year helped normalize it a little with, Hunter Henry and Jared Cook dipping in production.

There’s not enough data to come up with something conclusive here, but seeing Jared Cook and Martellus Bennett increase production on short-term deals might be significant. Likewise, Ladarius Green and Jack Doyle were near the end of rookie deals when they saw increased opportunities. The most notable data point is probably Jonnu Smith last year, who jumped in production before signing a big deal in New England. Outside of those three items, however, there still isn’t enough information here to determine something definitive.

Verdict: Possible Impact? Contract year tight ends could see an increase in production, but fantasy owners shouldn’t put a ton of stock into it, and opportunity still seems to be the primary factor. Next year, there should be a larger sample size with more marquee players set to hit free agency in 2022.

Potential 2021 Candidates: Zach Ertz, Robert Tonyan, Mo Alie-Cox, Hayden Hurst, Evan Engram, David Njoku, Mike Gesicki, Dallas Goedert,

Bottom Line

While I walked into this exercise wanting to disagree with Bales’ assessment from way back in 2012, I couldn’t completely disagree with him. Though there is some increase in production from contract year players in this sample, the variables are far too significant to say contract status is the leading factor.

  • Situation and opportunity still reign as the best categories to consider for improved fantasy production, particularly for running backs.
  • Quarterbacks are rarely in a situation where contract status is the largest determining factor.
  • Wide receivers seem to be the most likely to see a bump in a contract year, assuming all other factors remain reasonably constant.
  • Tight ends have a small sample size to work with, but there’s something to be said for a tight end on the last season of a rookie deal, or on a one-year prove-it deal who is set to start.
  • In general, fantasy owners should view contract status as a tiebreaker or just one small part of the rankings puzzle, and not as a major factor.

Potential 2021 Candidates from OverTheCap.

About Author